Anyone who still holds Congress in high esteem may want to revisit that sentiment, in light of the farcical tragicomedy that transpired yesterday on the House floor, courtesy of our current poster child for congressional sleaze, Democrat Charlie Rangel.
Faced with 13 counts of corruption in a long-scheduled ethics proceeding, Rangel stalked out in a huff, declaring that the session was “unfair,” thus bringing to mind a courtroom scene in the Woody Allen movie Bananas, when defendant Fielding Mellish (Woody) sputters that his trial is “a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham.”Rangel had wanted the ethics panel to postpone his trial. Which is amusing, because back in August, during a 30-minute floor rant, he had demanded an expedited trial.After Rangel exited yesterday, the House ethics committee went ahead and tried him anyway – in absentia, as it were. It was the kind of thing that criminal prosecutors opt to do when a prized mob defendant suddenly hospitalizes himself for dementia after contriving to wander the streets in robe and slippers.Rangel, a 40-year veteran of a safe Harlem district and former chair of the powerful Ways and Means committee, has been an embarrassment to the Democrats for several years now, ever since the ethics panel launched its probe. The panel’s report, released in July, details the misadventures of an insider who has stayed way too long at the trough. He brought “discredit to the House” by (among other things) failing to report, on required congressional disclosure forms, that he owned income-generating properties in New York, New Jersey, Florida, and the Dominican Republic; failing to report, on those forms, that he had two bank accounts with a combined value as high as a million bucks; failing to report his dividend income from other investments; failing to report what he pocketed from the sale of a Harlem townhouse, not to mention the rental income he had made off that townhouse prior to sale.He also failed to pay taxes on rental income from that aforementioned villa in the Dominican Republic. He also solicited charitable donations from people who had business on Capitol Hill; for instance, he worked a suspicious deal with an oil corporation, whereby the firm reportedly agreed to donate a million bucks for an institute called The Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Policy – and, in return, he reportedly pulled strings to protect a tax loophole beneficial to the firm.Anyway, before the ethics panel proceeded with its trial yesterday, it offered Rangel 10 hours to defend himself. That’s when he lapsed at length into Fielding Mellish mode, and said (this is the very abridged version, minus his self-praise for his World War II service and other ancillary topics): “Can you tell me under what theory of fairness would dictate that I be denied due process, that I be denied an attorney…I am being denied a right to have a lawyer…I object to these proceedings, and I, with all due respect, since I don’t have counsel to advise me, I’m going to excuse myself from these proceedings.”Who, pray tell, was denying him the right to have a lawyer? Nobody, actually. Rangel was officially informed, as long ago as September 2008, that he should lawyer up. And the ethics panel on four occasions gave him advice on how to cover his legal bills. He did hire a law firm, and he paid the tab out of his leftover re-election campaign account (which is permitted under House rules), but he and the firm parted ways last March, in a disagreement over legal strategy. He has not hired new counsel since, complaining that he doesn’t have the money.Actually, Rangel does have the money. For instance, he could sell off that Dominican Republic villa, the one that he failed to pay taxes on, and use the proceeds for a new lawyer. Or he could sell off the multiple rent-stabilized apartments that he owns in a luxury Harlem building (to those of you unfamiliar with today’s Harlem, yes, there are some swanky buildings there). But instead Rangel prefers to play the aggrieved victim, however poorly.The upshot? The panel ruled yesterday that the 13 corruption counts were supported by 549 items of evidence, and that the charges were “uncontested.” The next step is to render a formal finding of guilt (update: guilty on 11 counts) and recommend punishment, probably a letter of reprimand or censure. In other words, a slap on the wrist; expulsion is highly unlikely.And even at this late hour, some fellow politicians make exuses for Rangel. One Democrat on the House ethics panel said yesterday that Rangel was not corrupt, merely “sloppy in his personal finances” – which prompts me to wonder whether the IRS would consider you or me to be “sloppy” if we failed to report hundreds of thousands of dollars of income.With apologies to Woody, this kind of double standard is a travesty of a mockery of a sham. As is the behavior of Charlie Rangel, who refuses to take his leave.——-Thank you, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, for deep-sixing the right-wing complaints about President Obama’s foreign trip. Krauthammer doesn’t bother to dignify the viral lies about “$200 million a day.” He just dismisses the complaints as “silly and vindictive” and points out: “Presidential visits are the highest form of diplomacy, and the symbolism alone carries enormous weight.”——-Thank you, lame- duck Senator Arlen Specter for placing one of my most recent columns in Monday’s edition of The Congressional Record.